„That’s funny …“ – teenagers living one day in the life of a scientist

Isaac Asimov supposedly once said “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny…’”. Indeed, many scientists have experienced this notion that something in their data is so puzzling, so difficult to explain that they desperately want to find out more about it.


Instructions ©Alfried Krupp-Schülerlabor

This is also the spirit of exploration that we at the RUB Chair for Chemistry Education hope to install in future scientists. And this is the aim of the one-day project “High Resolution – focus on research” that runs since 2015, in cooperation with RESOLV, at the Alfried Krupp School Laboratory. There, students should think and discuss about methods and challenges of scientific inquiry, experience them first hand and also look over the shoulder of real scientists. These are high expectations, but how does the project work in practice?

One day in high resolution…


On the lab bench ©Alfried Krupp-Schülerlabor

Students – usually a class of 14 to 16 year-olds – and teachers arrive at the Alfried Krupp School Laboratory at 9 am. They are welcomed by a member of the science education staff. First of all, they get an introductory example on the early stages of systematic science – 18th century Joseph Priestley’s research on air. The gap to the 21st century is bridged when the students discuss how Priestley would present his findings today. Then they are introduced to JoVE, the Journal of Visualized Experiments, where real scientists publish their papers as videos. The big take-away from this introduction is that scientific inquiry is not only about finding things out, it is also about communicating your inquiry to other people. With this in mind, the students enter the laboratory at 10 am. They learn about the methods and the aims of scientific inquiry.


Time to measure ©Alfried Krupp-Schülerlabor

They get training in using chemiluminiscence and microscopy to investigate cells. They then develop their own research questions about various plants, they carry out their investigations and have to come up with their own conclusions. Most importantly, once they found something interesting, students are asked to shoot and edit a video on their inquiry using tablet computers. Just before lunch, the final take and cut have to be done.

After lunch, the students enter one of the RESOLV laboratories. They visit the group of Jun.-Prof. Simon Ebbinghaus, who investigates protein aggregation using fluorescence microscopy. Usually, one PhD student in Ebbinghaus group presents his/her research on protein aggregation in model cells, and introduces the students to the fluorescence microscope and how to operate it manually and via computer. Most importantly, teenagers get a chance to ask questions concerning science, how to become a scientist and life in academia.

At the end of the day, the students return to the Alfried Krupp School Laboratory.

“That’s funny”…students get to know the puzzling of science under the guidance of Dr. Magdalena Groß ©Alfried Krupp-Schülerlabor

They watch and evaluate their movies, trying to make a fair and honest judgement whether they have performed and presented convincing inquiries. It turns out that many would have wanted to be more rigorous. But they all agree that theirs was only a first step on the long and winding road to becoming a scientist. Hopefully, they’ll remember that day, when they look through an ocular at something puzzling and thought: “That’s funny…”.

Work in progress

The school laboratory project has been offered, booked and evaluated since the beginning of 2015. So far, eight groups with about 170 students have participated in the project. Students from regional and national schools as well as high-achieving students (“Chemie-Olympiade”, “Biologie-Olympiade”) have taken part in the initiative. We continuously evaluate the program by asking participating students, teachers and science educators for their opinions. The students particularly like the opportunity to carry out their own inquiries, they enjoy making videos about their experiments and they highly value the chance to see and talk to a real scientist. The project will continue to change if necessary as the main priority remains to keep the focus on research.

Additional material and publications

Braun, S., Strippel, C. G., Sommer, K. (2016). Naturwissenschaftliche Erkenntnisgewinnung in Schüler-Videos. Proceedings of the Gesellschaft für Didaktik der Chemie und Physik. Berlin: Lit Verlag.

Strippel, C. G., Tomala, L., & Sommer, K. (accepted). Klappe, die Erste! – Schüler produzieren eigene Experimentiervideos. Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftlicher Unterricht.

About the authors

@ RUB, Foto: Nelle

@ RUB, Foto: Nelle

Christian Strippel was born 1988 in Bochum and holds a M.Ed. in Chemistry and English. His (scientific) motto of life is: “Fortune favours the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur
He studied in Cambridge (UK) for one year and holds a Postgraduate Certificate of Education (Chemistry, University of Cambridge). Currently, he works on his Ph.D. project “Communication about scientific inquiry during experimentation”.


Prof Dr Katrin Sommer © RUB, Marquard zu nennen.

© RUB, Marquard

Katrin Sommer is Professor of Chemistry Education at the Ruhr-University since 2004. She is also head of the Alfried Krupp-School Laboratory since 2012. She has a 1. Staatsexamen in Chemistry and Biology from Leipzig University (1995), a 2. Staatsexamen (1997) and a PhD in Chemistry Education from Nuremberg-Erlangen University (2000). She was recently presented with the Award from the German Polytechnik Society for the parent-child-project KEMIE.


Solvation science into focus at historic Solvay conference.

Three members of the Cluster of Excellence RESOLV attended last October the renowned Solvay-Conference on Chemistry in Brussel, an event open to invited scientists only. Prof. Dr. Martina Havenith, speaker of RESOLV at RUB, Prof. Dr. Frank Neese, director at the Max-Planck-Institute for Energy Conversion, and Prof. Dr. Benjamin List, director at the Max-Planck-Institute for Coal Research, both based in Mülheim an der Ruhr, were among the fifty attendees.


2016 Solvay Conference group picture ©InternationalSolvayInstitutes

Belgian chemist and industrialist Ernest Solvay, the founder of the chemical company Solvay S.A., initiated the first series of international conferences on physics in 1911, while the first meeting on chemistry occurred in 1922. Since then the Solvay-Conferences on Chemistry and Physics had been held every three years. The conferences have become extremely famous after the 1927 physics meeting on ´Electrons and Photons´, when Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, among others, met to discuss the newly forged quantum theory.

The 2016 meeting evolved around the theme ‘Catalysis in Chemistry and Biology’. We briefly interviewed Havenith, List and Neese about their experience in Brussels.


What was your impression of the conference?


Discussing at the 2016 Solvay Conference ©InternationalSolvayInstitutes

Martina Havenith: It was very impressive for many different reasons. First of all, it’s rare to see five Nobel prize winners together! – and it’s even rarer that they are listening to your ideas and discussing the future direction of chemistry. Besides, it was an intimate meeting, and we had much more time than usual for discussions. It was also remarkable to witness the special engagement of an industrial family into science. And it was impressive to read the names of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie in a guestbook!

Benjamin List:  One of the best conferences I have ever attended!

Frank Neese: The conference was unlike any other I have ever attended. There obviously is an impressive history associated with Solvay conferences and it was a major honor to be invited to participate. It takes place in a fairly unique setting in a beautiful historic hotel in Brussels with a closed circle of only invited international speakers and an outstanding accompanying program. The format is also different from usual: The talks are just ten minutes long and the discussion takes first place among the members of the session, only later it involves the other guests.


What was the take-home message? How was solvation science portrayed?

Martina Havenith: This meeting focused on the main challenges in catalysis. It was not about the details of the field but it rather provided a big picture of what we have learned in the past and what is still unclear. Most interesting for RESOLV: In the end it was noted that the solvent has not yet been taken much into consideration, but in the future we should have a closer look into it and its important role in catalysis.


Session begins at the 2016 Solvay Conference ©InternationalSolvayInstitutes

Benjamin List: I was able to identify three unifying principles of catalysis – including heterogeneous, homogenous organic and metal catalysis, and biocatalysis: 1. Turnover frequency (an index of a catalyst’s activity: The larger the frequency, the more active the catalyst); 2. Confinement (a well-defined and confined local environment of a catalyst’s active site); and 3. Solvation! Everybody in the field is aware of the unique relevance of solvation to catalysis – understanding this defines one of the grand challenges of the field.

Frank Neese: It became very evident that an open dialogue among the various disciplines of catalysis, in particular homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysis, is really needed. At the end of the day, the problems are the same (what are the intermediates? How is selectivity controlled? How is the energy loss minimized?). Yet vocabulary, cultures and challenges of the various disciplines are vastly different, hence there hardly can be any 1:1 transfer from one field to the other. However, it was interesting to see how biochemists have achieved the most detailed understanding of individual reaction mechanisms in biological catalysis. That’s partially because they are willing to devote their entire career to study few reaction mechanisms and to involve experts from neighbouring disciplines in the endavour. Clearly, quantum chemistry has evolved as a very powerful partner of experiment and it’s becoming a universal tool for catalysis research as a whole.

About the author

EF3Emiliano Feresin is a science journalist, currently responsible for the outreach activities within the RESOLV cluster at RUB. Born and raised in Italy, he holds a Diploma and a PhD degree in chemistry. Driven by an innate curiosity for scientific stories, he completed his education with a master degree in science communication. Along the path he has written for outlets like Nature and Chemistry World and learned that the reader has always the last word.



Embedding nanoparticles into porous materials for greener chemistry.

Chemical and pharmaceutical industries are constantly seeking new ways towards sustainable chemistry that allows for less waste production and reduced energy consumption during industrial processes. One way, which I investigated in my PhD research, would be to use nanoparticles to speed up chemical reactions – a process called catalysis.

Nanoparticles are tiny objects or combinations of several atoms that can be as small as 1 nm and show unique properties, different from the bulk material. Take gold, for example. We are used to its shapes and colors in jewelry, but gold nanoparticles show completely new properties, such as red color in solution or the ability to behave as a catalyst in an efficient and selective manner. Similarly, nanoparticles of Platinum (Pt) and Palladium (Pd) can also act as catalysts in various processes (i.e. hydrogenation, the reduction of organic compounds). Nanoparticles promise to be highly selective, to greatly increase the reaction rate and to lower energy consumption. However, one major disadvantage of nanoparticles is the tendency for aggregation and thus the loss of their unique catalytic properties.

MOFs support nanoparticles for catalysis

In my PhD, I successfully encapsulated catalytically active metal nanoparticles of Pt or a combination of Pt/Pd into stabilising support materials called metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), which prevent aggregation. Inside MOFs, the tiny metal particles could maintain their unique capacity to hydrogenate nitrobenzene-based compounds and additionally be very selective towards the target products. Moreover, I could show that the combination of bimetallic nanoparticles of Pt and Pd with MOFs can surpass the catalytic hydrogenation activity of the monometallic Pt nanoparticles. This alternative solution may help to reduce the costs for the use of noble metals, replacing parts of the expensive Pt by Pd.

Especially in view to catalysis, MOFs exhibit two beneficial properties: Storage capacity (sponge-like property) and molecular selectivity (sieve-like) – in fact, due to the unique microporous structure of the support, the embedded nanoparticles are only accessible by molecules that fit the dimensions of the MOF pores (see Figure 1). MOFs are porous materials, formed by interconnection of organic linker molecules and metal ions or clusters. Thereby, a three dimensional network with a huge inner surface area is formed, which simultaneously possesses enough space to accommodate small sized nanoparticles or other guest molecules and solvents (water, nitrogen, carbon dioxide). Hence, MOFs feature the ability to absorb and/or separate a certain amount of substances at the molecular level, very similar to sponges or sieves.


Figure 1. Top: Schematic representation of encapsulated nanoparticles inside a MOF with shape-selective, catalytic properties. The smaller substrate A1 is able to infiltrate the framework and can be converted to the target product B at the embedded nanoparticles – the larger molecule A2 is instead unable to infiltrate the MOF. The MOF consists of metal clusters (blue tetrahedra) interconnected by organic linkers, building up a 3D structure, where metal nanoparticles are exclusively embedded. Bottom: hydrogenation of sterically different nitroarenes to the corresponding amines, where aniline is selectively produced (size selectivity).

In my work I choose the Zirconium-based metal organic framework named UiO-66, which appears in a 3-dimensional structures with tetrahedral and octahedral pore geometries. A major advantage of this particular MOF is its extraordinary high thermal and chemical stability against water, acids and several organic solvents. Therefore, UiO-66 represents an appropriate candidate for heterogeneous catalysis, while other MOFs would decompose during the applied catalytic conditions.

Low-cost bimetallic Pd/Pt into MOFs show promising catalytic activity

Following a template approach, we exclusively embedded preformed mono- and bimetallic Pt and Pd/Pt nanoparticles without undesired deposition at the outer surface of the porous material, which in fact represents the key feature for shape-selective catalysis. Then we elucidated the structural integrity of the material and the exact spatial distribution of the nanoparticles (fully embedded into the MOF crystals or not). For instance, powder x-ray diffraction (PXRD) measurements indicated the crystallinity of UiO-66, even after the encapsulation process; transmission electron microscopic (TEM) measurements showed the successful and exclusive encapsulation of the nanoparticles into the core of the MOF crystals.

Afterwards the materials were further studied for selective hydrogenation of nitrobenzene-based compounds to the respective anilines. Direct comparison of the embedded Pt and Pd/Pt NPs showed a much higher catalytic activity for the bimetallic species, while the shape-selective character, originating from the microporous MOF, was maintained. Hopefully, this may become another possible solution towards sustainable.

About the author:

picture2Christoph Rösler received his MSc in Inorganic Chemistry at RUB in 2012 – supervision of Prof. R. A. Fischer . During his Master thesis he visited the labs of Prof. H. Kitagawa at Kyoto University, designing metal nanoparticles, especially multiphase systems. Since 2013 he is a PhD student in the group of Prof. Fischer, tackling metal nanoparticle inclusion into metal-organic frameworks. He also investigated catalytic properties of NP@MOF composites at the the Instituto de Tecnología Química of Prof. A. Corma in Valencia.

Tinkering with solvent helps to regulate the crystallization behavior of amino acids

During my PhD research, I investigated the possibility to influence the crystallization behavior of glycine by means of crystallization experiments under ambient conditions. I could show that it is possible to control the crystal formation of glycine from aqueous solution by isotopic exchange (H/D-exchange) on the solvent or the addition of mineral powder.

Glycine, the smallest amino acid, can crystallize from aqueous solution in different stable solid forms that are called α and γ polymorphs. I could show, on a statistical basis, that glycine forms the γ polymorph from heavy water (D2O) solutions instead of the α form, which is known to crystallize from normal water (H2O). Additionally, my studies regarding the introduction of inorganic powdered material, like fluorapatite (Ca5[F(PO4)3]) or calcite (CaCO3), into the crystallization system, also lead to γ formation. That is, our studies showed that the H/D exchange as well as the introduction of inorganic surfaces to the crystallization system influence and even regulate the crystallization behavior of glycine immensely.

The scheme illustrates that either deuteration of the molecule (top) or the application of biominerals (bottom) can lead to crystallization of γ-glycine (right) instead of α-glycine (left) from solution.

As methods the experimental grazing-incidence X-Ray diffraction (GIXRD) investigations accompanied by force field simulations were carried out to describe the interface between the amino acid solution and the biomineral surface structure. The support by computational methods offered an insight into the molecular interaction level and thereby provided nice approaches to explain the observed phenomena.

The video shows force field based molecular dynamic simulations regarding the dissolution of an interacting glycine dimer in aqueous environment of H2O and D2O molecules. Further, it shows the crystallization of glycine from a water solution droplet on fluorapatite (100) surface and calcite (101) surface.

Link to the PhD thesis of Anna Kupka: “Untersuchungen zur Steuerung des Kristallisationsverhaltens von Aminosäuren in Lösung durch den Einsatz von Deuterium oder Biomineralien”

Link to Graduate School Solvation Science

About the Author

anna_kupkaDr. Anna Kupka has recently accomplished her PhD research in the department of Inorganic Chemistry I at Ruhr-University Bochum, as a stipend holder from Graduate School of Solvation Science, GSS, RESOLV. She has had research stays in various scientific institutions in Spain, Italy and France including her GSS internship in Spain, and has attended several conferences.

A theoretical study to unveil the working cycle of an elusive enzyme causing tissue diseases

Living far from my family makes me look forward to every meeting with them. And here I am, just arrived at the airport, everyone is looking at me, smiling and asking lots of questions, including a dreading one: “Ok, tell us what your work is about?” For me, as a theoretical chemist, this is a mission impossible! Should I bore them with equations and certain words, such as quantum mechanics, level of theory, potential energy surface? It’s hard to be general while speaking about such a specific topic, but I shall give it a try.

In one of my PhD projects I investigate the working cycle of an enzyme called MMP-2 (Matrix Metalloproteinase type 2), finding out the important role of an acidic residue of the enzyme and of the surrounding water.

MMP-2 is located in tissues of animals and humans. It regulates the proper protein composition of the extracellular matrix by cutting collagens (structural proteins of the tissues). At certain conditions MMP-2 may get too active doing its job, it will cut gelatin too fast and too intensely, causing inflammation processes, tumors, metastasis and similar illnesses.

A long-range aim is to find a way to control the activity of MMP-2, for example by designing a molecule (a drug), that would block the active site of the enzyme and stop the excessive degrading of gelatin. But before doing so we need to know in detail how the enzyme works: where the active site of the enzyme is and what rearrangements occur during the chemical reaction. Unfortunately, the experimental techniques cannot give exhaustive information on all the chemical steps, this is where theoretical chemistry comes into play.

The theoretical models we construct are based on experimental data, but we must always keep in mind the approximations we make and the limitations of the theory we use. Nevertheless, our models let us see atoms in molecules, atom movements during chemical reactions, and we can also estimate energy penalties for chemical processes.

Enzymes are big molecules, therefore they are treated by a special “divide and conquer” computational approach, called QM/MM (quantum mechanics/molecular mechanics). Our MMP-2 model system was divided into two parts: a small part, where a chemical reaction takes place, was treated by accurate but computationally expensive (quantum mechanics) methods; the rest (the environment) was treated by fast “balls on springs” approximation, called molecular mechanics. By using this trick we managed to perform accurate calculations on big biomolecules in a reasonable computing time.

The following video shows the four main steps of a chemical reaction in MMP-2: 1. a water molecule attacks the substrate (ES → TS1 → I1)1, 2. O-H group rotates (I1 → TS2 → I2), 3. a proton is transferred from an oxygen atom to nitrogen (I2 → TS3 → I3), 4. a bond between carbon and nitrogen breaks (I3 → TS4→ I4). We see that the acidic residue (which is a glutamic acid) plays a crucial role in the chemical reaction and that water molecules act as a reagent. By not letting water into the active site or by changing a substrate in a way that at least one step of a chemical reaction cannot proceed we can stop MMP-2 from working.

I have also modelled a product release step and found out that it may very likely be a rate limiting step of the whole process. In a similar fashion, I’ve studied a mutant of MMP-2 as well.

At the end I’d like to say that a valuable scientific discovery can be made only with the combination of theory, experiment and something as simple as a groundbreaking idea.

1 The abbreviations stand for ES: enzyme substrate complex, TS: transition state and I: intermediate.

Link to Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung

About the Author

Tatiana Vasilevskaya was born in Minsk, USSR. She obtained her Diploma in Chemistry at Lomonosov Moscow State University. Currently she works on her PhD thesis at MPI für Kohlenforschung at Mülheim an der Ruhr in the group of Prof. Walter Thiel.

Ultrafast lasers will help us understand the matrix of life.


Clara Saraceno

Born in Argentina, university studies in France, an experience in the industry in the US and a PhD in Switzerland: The 32 year old physicist Clara Saraceno has literally followed her passion for lasers around the world. Since June, the 2015 Sofja Kovalevskaja Award winner (a prize of the The Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation) has started a W2 tenure track professorship at RUB. In RESOLV she will build the ultrafast lasers that Martina Havenith (speaker of the cluster) will use to investigate the role of water in biological processes. Similar to the lasers she works with, Saraceno is a powerful and resolute scientist. Her driving force, as she tells us in this interview, is fun.

Q: RESOLV is essentially about understanding how water works and why is water the matrix of life. Why exploit lasers in the THz field to study water?

Water shows extremely strong absorption in the THz regime, hence we can apply light sources in that field to investigate water dynamics. For example this could help us follow how water behaves around a protein while the molecule is functioning, making reactions and so on.

Q: How do you want to study water dynamics?

In general, the more short laser pulses you have per second the more information per second you get. Hence, to study fast dynamics we need lasers that deliver very short pulses at very high repetition rate, which means reaching high average power.

Q: How simple is that?

That’s exactly the ongoing challenge in ultrafast laser research! There are several ways to do this: You could pump the power by amplifying a regular ultrafast oscillator output or you can aim for simple compact source by trying to push the oscillator itself. I actually prefer the second option: I could reach an average 275 W power with 600 femtoseconds pulse duration and 17 MHz repetition rate in the near infrared range – a record that I actually achieved in 2012. My challenge here at RUB is to use these sources and convert them into high-power sources into the 1-10 THz range: We would like to reach an average power close to 1 W and a repetition rate bigger than 1 MHz.


The THz gap in the electromagnetic radiation spectrum © Martin Saraceno

Q: What are the main hurdles along the way and how can you overcome them?

Like for every high power, solid-state laser, we would need to minimize heat and maximize cooling, by choosing the right materials and the right geometry. The one geometry that I favor implies a gain medium, the main source of heat, shaped like a pancake. The disks that we use are just a few hundred microns thin, allowing for better dissipation of the heat and better-shaped short pulses.

Q: How do you cool down the discs?

The disks are actually glued on diamonds! They dissipate heat very well. We don’t use the pretty polished ones, just synthetic, but they are still expensive. The diamonds are then water-cooled.

Q: So much for hard science. What led you to work with lasers?

It was during my university studies on optics in France, there was this lecture on lasers technology. It was so cool! And then the school was offering an internship at Coherent, an American laser manufacturing company set in California. I thought: “Sunny California, for one year, lasers are cool, why not?”. But I applied too late.


Inside of a laser © Clara Saraceno

I contact them anyway after my master for an engineer trainee, and they got me. There I learned everything about lasers and I really got the ultrafast laser bug. It was real fun!

Q: How did it happen that you then went back to academia?

I soon found out that in the laser industry you need a PhD to make interesting things. So I was looking for an opportunity and it happened that my ex boyfriend was in Europe and that my cubicle-colleague at Coherent knew Prof. Ursula Keller at ETH in Zurich, Switzerland. He suggested I should apply there. They wanted me, and I really had a great time in Zurich, it’s a fantastic group!

Q: You’ve mentioned it already three times, what do you mean with fun?

I really enjoy manipulating stuff, go to lab and turn knobs. I love making nice devices and lasers. And I really marvel at the German way of making good functioning devices based on sound engineering.

Q: And now you are here at RUB?

Again there were coincidences. Martina Havenith once came to Zurich to give a talk. In her last slide she said “we need to increase the resolution, we need more powerful sources”. And my boss, Keller, goes “take Clara, she is looking for a job!”. So I applied for the Kovalevskaja prize and here I am.

Q: How was moving from the green, mountain-rich Switzerland to the concrete-rich Bochum?

Switzerland is super-nice, but with a family and a small baby, my priority was to move forward in science. I’m impressed by the scientific excellence that I’ve found here. I think there’s really room for good collaborations and for my own activity to grow. And the environment is a nice too! If I look at the right side I see green hills.

Q: Who do you see yourself collaborating with?

A natural collaboration would be with Janne Savolainen. He knows a lot about the right ways to generate THz light. And here I come, with some of the most powerful ultrafast lasers in the world!

2_schematic THz gen_water

Simplified scheme of the project idea: Disk (on diamond) generates near infrared pulse; conversion to THz pulse, which is used to study water molecules © Martin Saraceno

Q: What are your next steps at RUB? When will you do research on water?

First, we need to build up a lab, a good one. It will take around 6 months. Then I will start to tinker with laser to near the short pulses-high power in the THz domain. Soon, I would guess in some 18 month, we’ll do some experiments on water in parallel with the laser development.

Q: Becoming a professor at 32 is an outstanding achievement, especially for a woman, given the gender gap that still exists in science. What are your suggestions to young students and young women in science?

I always had so much fun with my work, so I would say: feel the passion! And don’t over think! If you see an opportunity give it a shot, what can you lose? Throw yourself in the pool, then things will work out.

Q: Clara, will we ever have the lightsabers of Star Wars?

Unfortunately laser swords make little sense physically. For the beam to suddenly ‘stop’ propagating, this would somehow imply that the laser beam is ‘trapped’ in a similar way to a resonator. However then, when something would intercept the beam the resonator would automatically stop, and the laser light would not be there anymore.

About the Author

EF3Emiliano Feresin is a science journalist, currently responsible for the outreach activities within the RESOLV cluster at RUB. Born and raised in Italy, he holds a Diploma and a PhD degree in chemistry. Driven by an innate curiosity for scientific stories, he completed his education with a master degree in science communication. Along the path he has written for outlets like Nature and Chemistry World and learned that the reader has always the last word.